When Too Much is Too Much


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From a $100 cup of coffee to a $25,000 ice cream sundae, when is expensive taste just bad taste?

Afew months back, I wrote a news brief about a luxury coffee bean that is making rare, but steadily more frequent, appearances on restaurant menus in espresso-addicted Italy. For $30 a single shot, or up to $100 for a more generous “Americano” mug-sized portion, you too can savor the dubious delights of Kopi Luwak, an Indonesian coffee made from beans that have passed through the digestive track of an indigenous weasel called the Asian Palm Civet, which pre-selects the tastiest, most mature beans before defecating them whole. Stomach enzymes reportedly make the coffee taste much better—to the tune of $1,000 per kilo.

 

Who would pay that much for a cup of coffee from the back end of a rat?

 

I did, actually. Following the umpteenth chance encounter with Kopi Luwak on my various culinary travels, curiosity got the best of me. I ceremoniously shelled out the big bucks for a shot of espresso. The coffee was indeed good but I definitely don’t feel the need to revisit any other weasel-based beverages, especially at those prices.
As the stock market makes cautious gains since Wall Street lows on March 9, 2009, I’ve noticed more absurdly expensive foods along the Kopi Luwak lines.
 

The New York Daily News recently published its Top Ten list of the world’s most expensive foods. Here are some examples, all available in New York City: First, a $25,000 ice cream sundae at Serendipity 3 on the Upper East Side. The Frrrozen Haute Chocolate cup blends cocoa from 14 countries and is topped with five grams of edible gold. Second, a $1,000 pizza at Nino’s Bellissima Pizza, on Second Avenue, with sliced lobster tail and four types of precious caviar poured over a bed of dough and sour cream. One estimate puts the price of that pie at $33 per bite. Third, Chef Emile Castillo’s “Zillion Dollar Frittata” (served at Norma’s restaurant in Le Parker Meridien Hotel) for $1,000. The omelet boasts egg, lobster and loads of Sevruga caviar. The paper’s review reads: “It’s so exclusive, so spectacular and so expensive that… nobody’s ordered one yet.”
 

 

According to the Associated Press, a Japanese hotel manager recently paid 100,000 yen ($910) for a single cluster of grapes. Each single berry off the New Ruby Roman cluster was worth approximately $26. Japan is also a thirsty market for high priced water. One brand, Kona Nigari, is collected 2,000 feet below sea level off the Hawaiian archipelago. A tiny two-ounce bottle of Kona Nigari seawater mineral concentrate (to mix with regular water) sells for $33.50. Those pricey drops add up to $2,144 per gallon.
 

 

Then there is a whole category of water bottles embedded with Swarovski crystals (Bling H20 is $40 per bottle) or cocktails with precious gems (the $16,000 “Diamonds are Forever” Martini has a one-carat Bulgari diamond at the bottom).
These absurdly priced items existed before the recession, but in good times we tend not to notice. It’s part of the landscape, another bauble in the giddy party of wealth accumulation. And that’s part of the problem. We don’t seem to be able to change. What changes is the context in which we see these cases of culinary vertigo. One year ago, a $25,000 ice cream sundae may have appeared as over-the-top as bloated executive bonuses on Wall Street. Today, it’s just bad taste.
 

 

We seem to be in an age of shamelessness. Mere months after the U.S.-centered financial meltdown that had reverberations around the world, it’s business as usual on Wall Street, with bloated bonuses, vulgar-excessive executive compensation and all talk of regulation forgotten. A few years after lobbying scandals in Washington, lobbyists are stronger than ever. That’s why these superficial, small-scale excesses irk me so much. They’re emblematic of the shamelessness of our age and the willful, systematic ignoring of reform because as long as the bling is shiny and the money is rolling in, who cares if there’s rot at the core?
Anyone can be awed by a high price tag. What the difficult year of 2009 has pressed us to answer is: can they be awed by a low one? Can we relearn to appreciate the value foods and wines that leave a lasting impression without the daunting price tag and gimmicky razzamatazz? It’s just as exciting to discover a great pizza wine for under $15 as it is to reaffirm that a $100 super Tuscan tastes as good as you remembered it should. An honest pepperoni pizza would taste better any day than the caviar and sour cream concoction described above.
 

 

A Stoli martini with a twist is classic. A martini with a diamond at the bottom of the glass just seems frivolous—and a liability. If you end up swallowing the thing, then you’re no better than the weasel.
 

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